Doin’ It Right


I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to express the views of black people who otherwise don’t have access to power and the media. I have to take advantage of that while I’m still bankable. —Spike Lee, Director

My job is to write shocking lyrics that will wake people up. —Chuck D., Founder, Public Enemy

here’s a picture of Chuck D. taken in 1988, a year before he became media target number one, the poster boy for violence and crime. He stands apart, dressed in a plain sweatshirt and baseball cap, both black. He lowers his eyes. Not deferentially, but as if he were concealing a weapon. The simplicity of his appearance is arresting. He doesn’t flaunt twenty gold chains or the massive clock of his compatriot, Flava Flav. This is a guy who’s aware of the power of his words. He knows that he possesses a dangerously influential thing. His taut, stern mouth seems clenched, holding back torrents of incendiary militant speech (Friedman). Chuck D. and Public Enemy released “Fight the Power” in 1989. While the song was hardly rap’s first assault on the establishment, it was a particularly explosive one. After witnessing their track get trashed by the music industry machinery, the group relocated their countercultural manifesto to the streets. Bootlegged live recordings of the track surfaced in metropolitan areas, and Public Enemy performed nearly nonstop throughout the boroughs of New York City to relay their militant message. Although the track was kept off the air because of its foul language and inflammatory political themes, record sales shot through the roof. “Fight the Power” became an anthem of urban black discontent, for better or worse. Quick to find a scapegoat for a recent rash of urban violence, cultural critics pointed fingers at Public


Enemy, accusing Chuck D. and Co. of planting the seed of revolt in black youth. But was life imitating art, or was it the other way around? How much of the revolution described in the track had already been lurking in neighborhoods across the country? Hot off the release of Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s third feature film, Lee faced a similar assault from critics. A gang of dissenters denounced the film as dangerously provocative. New York Magazine’s David Denby bluntly declared that the movie was “a call to violence” (qtd. in Hill 78). Reviewer Murray Kempton went further, condemning Lee’s representation of blacks as execrable, and even insinuating that the filmmaker had a “distaste” for his own race, providing a racist template for urban discontent (106). Critics thought Lee was playing with fire by introducing a work that could straddle the art house and the inner-city theater—provoking both nods of admiration and, perhaps, full-blown race riots. Lee’s use of “Fight the Power” as a musical leitmotif is strikingly appropriate. Thematically and contextually, the two works are strongly linked. Both texts question the so-called power behind the throne—not the folks in the White House, but those who shape cultural meaning and discourse. In Do the Right Thing, though, Lee seems to be concerned with a more nuanced problem than Chuck D., who performs a straight-up evisceration of the white media establishment. Lee focuses on the victims as well as the perpetrators, examining those who lack the privilege of sanctioned speech, the voices of the streets that are silenced and marginalized. While Chuck D. yells his beliefs through a bullhorn, Lee manages to find a niche of nuance in a world of noise. Do the Right Thing is a film preoccupied with noise. The public spaces of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, that Lee hones in on are filled with conflicting sources of dissonant sound. Oldsters yak, children yell, and sirens wail while music bounces off dilapidated brownstones. Here, shouting is necessary to break through the hubbub. And indeed, the closest thing to meaningful cultural discourse in Bed-Stuy is heard in the raised voices of incensed and unyielding ethnic opponents. We hear the angry words of a black wino berating a Korean grocer. This is America, he says; it “ain’t Korea, China, or wherever you come from.” Screeching and exhausted, a teenage Latina mother chastises the black father of her child for not sticking around to raise him. Even the loud laughter of kids playing next to a wrenched-open fire hydrant yields to the frustrated complaints of a rich white passerby. Lee is painstakingly thorough in his examination of anger and expression in the public sphere. His evaluation is pessimistic but fair, unflinching, aiming to expose loud and painful truths

about racial conflict that punish our eyes and ears unrelentingly. No matter how loud the streets get, however, extreme marginalization and ostracism prevent anyone from being heard in a larger sense. It seems that the critics were misguided in their criticisms of Lee. Do the Right Thing is not dangerous because of the riots it might provoke, but because of the lingering sense of futility that permeates the film’s violent closing scene. Some viewed Lee as just another Chuck D. figure, offering a single, violent solution. Instead, Lee picks up where Chuck D. leaves off, exploring a silenced community torn apart by untamable acts of provocation. Lee’s power comes from his unique position in the film world. Both the Manhattan intelligentsia and the inhabitants of Bed-Stuy (where Lee grew up) eagerly listen to what he has to say, accepting him as a member of their cultural arenas. The character Lee portrays in the film, Mookie, is similarly divided. Caught between clashing cultures, Mookie mediates from within. The first time we see Mookie hit his block in Bed-Stuy, we can tell he’s a wellconnected guy. It’s a scorching hot day, but the residents lazily stretched out on their front stoops perk up as he passes by. He nods to acknowledge their congenial cries of “Moo-kie!” He’s on his way to work at Sal’s Famous Pizzeria, the local pizza joint run by Sal and his sons, Pino and Vito. They’re the last remnants of the old Italian Bed-Stuy, before it became a black neighborhood. Mook greets them like friends, high-fiving Pino and nodding to Sal. He gingerly navigates the ethnic landscape, toeing the borderline of conflict with a mixture of restraint, diplomacy, and good-natured ball-breaking. Though Mookie is in the middle, life in Bed-Stuy is defined by extremes. Other middle-grounders disappear into the crowded brownstones, apparently too busy or too apathetic to participate in the conflicts of the public sphere. Lee purposefully neglects these people, focusing instead on the polarized members of rival sects. To an extent, this decision gives the film a cartoonish feel, with larger-than-life characters screaming at us and each other. Lee uses a wide-angle lens to crowd their faces into the frame, leaving them distorted and bulging out impertinently. Radio Raheem glares at Sal as he demands some extra cheese “on this motherfucker.” A youth clutches an empty coffee can, waiting for the right moment to gleefully redirect the stream of a fire hydrant to soak giggling youngsters and stodgy passersby. We can’t help but care about these colorful personalities, when they’re rational and kind as well as utterly inflamed. Ironically, this cartoony technique allows Lee to create an appropriately nuanced portrayal of the neighborhood’s racial, generational, and geographic conflicts.


Lee crafts an alternate reality, but not in the service of false idealization; his weird and twisted world somehow provides a more truthful view into our own. His accomplishment is significant. As a prominent black director, Lee invites more historical comparison than most. His mere presence in the film world is a comfort, as the medium was arguably born in racism. The cartoonish distortions of Do the Right Thing are a far cry from those found in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic Birth of a Nation. Griffith’s film—a groundbreaking work that established a host of contemporary film conventions—distorted not just reality, but history itself. In unabashed broad strokes of historical revisionism, Birth of a Nation portrays the KKK as saviors of the country, misrepresenting centuries of black oppression. The film is silent, so the words of the slaves are never heard. Viewers can only imagine what their pleas for life and mercy would sound like, feverishly erupting from mouths quickened by desperation. Demeaning title cards provide the only “voices” of the oppressed, jamming coarse textual rustications into the vocal vacuum. In the days of the postbellum South, this marginalization was even more literal; black sharecroppers lived on the ragged outskirts of town, destitute and wanting, the ruinous institution of sharecropping robbing them of any power. Despite these circumstances, Griffith’s racist film lays the blame on them, concluding that conflict grew from the margins. At the time, any voices or opinions coming from this unsanctioned shadow culture were stifled. The KKK used every method in its power to eliminate what it perceived as contradictory speech—burning, lynching, and jailing all who opposed them. This pain must haunt Lee, as a figure who inherits the legacy of the KKK in his life and his art. He portrays the KKK’s terrible power in his 1992 biopic Malcolm X, based on the autobiography of the controversial civil rights leader. A recurring, nightmarish image appears throughout the film: Malcolm’s father, an outspoken black preacher, tied to railroad tracks by white-hooded riders after resisting their warnings to leave town and stop preaching. He struggles, deafened by the oncoming roar of the locomotive rushing toward him. The options are clearly delineated: shut up, or die. Bed-Stuy’s public arena serves as a similar cultural battleground, pitting objectors against oppressors, compromisers against militants. This time, though, the elemental forces of “good” and “evil” are much more difficult to discern, and there are no clear options. On one hand, the “black elders” resist the wave of youthful rebellion that threatens to dismantle the tightly knit community they’ve labored to cultivate. This conflict—essentially compromise versus confrontation—carries over to the airwaves. Mister Señor Love Daddy, the frequently rhyming DJ of Bed-Stuy’s radio station We Love 108

FM, is the “old guard” of the air. Like the old-timers, he’s appeasing, compromising, and eager to maintain a shaky peace. Of course, the requirements of his position distinguish him from the crotchety street-dwellers: he’s literally elevated in his studio, clearly separated from the public by reinforced glass. Love Daddy compromises not because of genuine love for the community, but because his love is mandatory. Any deviation from his sanctioned, gregarious persona into serious racial discourse would lead to FCC intervention— he could be shut down. He’s a disguised arm of government-approved media, censored and pandering. By contrast, a hulking youth trudges along the sidewalk on the street below Love Daddy’s studio, lugging a boombox so large and loud that the blasting beats permeate even the soundproofed walls. The DJ calls out to him good-naturedly. “Radio Raheem! My man with his big bad box.” Raheem glances up, raises a lone fist, and moves on. Love Daddy’s greeting carries an undertone of conflict, like a brief exchange between two arch-rivals. Raheem sulks away in measured, lumbering steps, reinforced by the beat. Love Daddy and Raheem are foils, representing the extreme positions of interracial discourse. Love Daddy pleases everyone with his selections, spinning Latin, rap, jazz, and pop records for Bed-Stuy’s varied inhabitants. He serves as a concerned nanny, proffering praise and auditory treats but no definitive action. As soon as we pass through the glass of his studio, we join Raheem on the streets. Raheem has only one song and one clear, defiant, message; he blasts Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” incessantly, proclaiming his revolutionary stance. Yet it becomes obvious that Raheem’s attempts to spread the word of revolution are futile. His lone voice and boombox, unaffiliated, unsanctioned, and militant, cannot be heard over the collective shouts of everyone else on the street. Lee maintains that while oppression hasn’t managed to stifle the aching desire for equality, that desire has no clear voice; it can only contribute to the noise. In 1988, as he began writing the film, Lee was no stranger to this Sisyphean battle for recognition. His desire was to enlighten society with unblinking racial commentary. He fought tooth and nail to bring Do the Right Thing in an unaltered state to American theaters. In an interview with New York Magazine, he explained his obstacles: “At the last moment, Paramount asked me to change the ending. They wanted Mookie and Sal to hug and be friends and sing ‘We Are the World’” (Hill 78). You can hear the scoff. In the early nineties the multi-culturalism movement began to take off in the mainstream media. Images of multiracial groups singing and holding hands permeated pop-culture. PBS introduced a more diverse cast of characters on their children’s show Sesame Street, depicting a bunch of adorable kids learnMERCER STREET - 193

ing together harmoniously, despite their different creeds and colors. But Lee had a counterargument for these flattering oversimplifications, and in 1989, there was a bit of Raheem in him: he possessed a feeble form of expression compared to the mainstream media, and he sometimes thought of himself as a lone black filmmaker fighting a broken, deaf, and delusional system. Before the release of the film, Lee suspected that he could be forever silenced by Hollywood, shamed and marginalized. If he had only one shot at telling the truth, he wanted to tell it loudly. Like Chuck D., Lee knew that depriving a race, a group, or even a specific person of a voice could provoke a cataclysmic cycle of rage and frustration—the screams of a cultural exile yearning to be heard by any means necessary. It’s the end of the day at Sal’s. Sal and his two sons are cleaning up from the day’s work, toweling down the parmesan-encrusted countertops. Mookie, tired and surly from a scorching day without pay, stares aimlessly into the distance. As Sal closes the oven, the screen door to the pizzeria slams open, revealing Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out. Raheem’s signature boombox is cranked up to its maximum volume, and Buggin’ Out’s crazy hair is similarly volumized. The box blares,
Elvis was a hero to most But he never meant shit to me you see Straight up racist that sucker was Simple and plain Motherfucker him and John Wayne Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps Sample a look back you look and find Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check.

Chuck D.’s cultural heroes don’t appear on stamps, or on Bed-Stuy’s wall of fame—the signed photos of famous Italians in Sal’s Famous Pizzeria. Raheem and Buggin’ Out demand that Sal put “some brothers” on the wall. But Sinatra, Pacino, Cuomo, and De Niro stare down at them, resolute, as Sal argues that it’s “my pizzeria. American-Italians only on that wall.” The dichotomy between the establishment and the streets remains in place. Everything within Sal’s front window, like Love Daddy’s studio, is sanctioned, privatized, and accepted as a component of white social expression. Everything outside this sanctum is marginalized. Sal owns his right to expression: his business affords him this power. Chuck D. raps on loudly. In a flash, the Louisville Slugger behind the counter is in Sal’s hands, falling again and again into Raheem’s boombox until its circuit boards are

strewn across the restaurant. Raheem stares first at the wreckage, then at Sal’s face, then back again. As the box expires, we hear “Got to give us what we want / Gotta give us what we need / Our freedom of speech is freedom or death.” Raheem’s stunned silence gives way to rage. He lunges at Sal, and the two scuffle on the floor, rolling out onto the street, throwing punches. The neighborhood police arrive in an instant. Brandishing billy clubs, they size up Raheem as the greatest threat and yank him off Sal. One officer wraps his club around Raheem’s neck, roughly jerking up and backward. Eventually, Raheem’s struggling muscles start to relax. When Raheem is finally released from the choke-hold, he hits the tarmac with a cold smack. He is dead. Mookie has been standing by all the while, soaking it all in. Until now, he had been able to identify with both sides of the cultural war, mediating them from within. But Raheem and Buggin’ Out’s provocation, countered by Sal and then the police in the most violent way possible, is simply too much for him to bear. Toeing the line becomes impossible as Raheem and his means of expression are destroyed. Mookie stares at the front window of Sal’s. It forms a hateful barrier between the establishment and the streets, a symbol of the unattainable and unconquerable. A middle-grounder for all his life, Mookie destroys the middle ground. He hurls a trash can through the glass in a cacophonous explosion of sound. Compromising, apathetic middle-grounders, awakened by the incendiary noise of what quickly becomes a full-blown riot, pour out of their homes. The pizzeria is pillaged and set aflame by the mob; it becomes indistinguishable from the streets. And in this moment, the danger of what Mookie—and Chuck D. and Lee, for that matter—is doing becomes crystal clear. Although we understand the violent rage of these provocateurs, we can no longer identify with them once they cross the line between smoldering discontent and utter destruction. Lee knows this and offers no easy way out. Instead, he records the screams of the marginalized while avoiding a blatant, explicit call for widespread violence. Lee is not Chuck D.; he cannot suppress his own legitimate voice by giving us an ending that is either conciliatory or riotous. After the glass is shattered, Sal’s becomes yet another marginalized space within a marginalized space, and we viewers are left feeling futile, helpless against the odds, yet determined somehow to mend our ways, to do the right thing. As the flames burn higher, a lone youth slips into the wreckage. Slowly, carefully he props a postcard-sized photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X under Cuomo and De Niro on the wall of heroes. The image,

showing the smiling faces of both provocation and peaceful protest, bubbles and curls as the heat rises. The burning brothers against the wall tell us what must be done. We hear, if we are attentive, Lee’s urgent call of distress, and momentarily feel the hurtful sting of disempowering oppression. WORKS CITED Birth of a Nation. Dir. D. W. Griffith. Epoch, 1915. Film. Do The Right Thing. Dir. Spike Lee. 1989. Universal, 1998. DVD. Friedman, Glen E. It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Album cover. Def Jam Recordings, 1987. CD. Hill, Logan. “How I Made It: Spike Lee on ‘Do the Right Thing.’” New York Magazine. 7 Apr. 2008: 78-79. Print. Kempton, Murray. “The Pizza is Burning!” Rev. of Do The Right Thing, dir. Spike Lee. New York Review of Books 28 Sept. 1989: 106-11. Print. Malcom X. Dir. Spike Lee. 1992. Warner Bros., 2000. DVD. Ridenhour, Carlton Douglas, and William Jonathan Drayton, Jr. “Fight the Power.” Fear of a Black Planet. Def Jam, 1988. CD.


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